Turtle Island’s Voodoo Children. Photograph by Jay Blakesberg
In just two years, Jimi Hendrix recorded three studio albums that turned rock-and-roll on its ear and made an icon out of a man who was just in his mid-twenties. With 1967’s Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold as Love, Hendrix created the archetypal guitar god, in whose path every subsequent axe slinger would follow. And in 1968, he recorded what was meant to be his magnum opus but turned out to be his swan song. Though somewhat uneven, Electric Ladyland showcased the true breadth of Hendrix’s talents and gave his devotees a hint of what might have come, if not for the overdose that killed him in 1970.
Though Hendrix’s career and life were tragically short, his music still resonates 40 years after his death. This Friday’s concert at the Mansion at Strathmore featuring the Turtle Island String Quartet illustrates the true extent of Hendrix’s influence. The group is performing in support of its latest release, Have you Ever Been . . . ?, which puts many of Hendrix’s classic songs into an entirely new context.
The project is the brainchild of David Balakrishnan, Turtle Island’s founding member. “I actually got to see Hendrix play live in LA when I was 15,” says Balakrishnan. “He had a huge impact on me.”
Balakrishnan formed Turtle Island in 1985 as a vehicle for the music he was composing while in graduate school at Antioch University West. The current lineup consists of Balakrishnan and Mads Tolling on violin, Jeremy Kittel on viola, and Mark Summer on cello. As Hendrix did with rock music, Turtle Island has turned the notion of a classical string quartet on its ear. In 2007, the quartet reinterpreted saxophonist John Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme. The ensemble has also delved into Brazilian music and has collaborated with musicians as diverse as Latin jazz legend Paquito D’Rivera, the late Billy Taylor, and a host of others. Through all its success, Turtle Island has retained its basic aesthetic, which is to respect the foundational tenets of classical music while adding contemporary and spontaneous elements.
“From early on, I wanted to write string quartet music for people like me, who were trained in classical music but could also improvise,” Balakrishnan explains. “When you improvise, you’re actually using a different part of your brain.”
Electric Ladyland proved to be a good starting point for Turtle Island to explore Hendrix’s music, largely because of the way the album was recorded. His previous work was mostly based on the basic power trio format. On Ladyland, he began to utilize overdubbing to a greater extent, creating a layered and textured sound that translated well to a string quartet format. Turtle Island created arrangements of classic tracks like “All Along the Watchtower,” “Gypsy Eyes,” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” In addition, the group covered earlier hits such as “Little Wing” and “Hey Joe.” Have you Ever Been . . . ? also features a four-part suite composed by Balakrishnan, which will be part of Friday’s program. Balakrishnan notes that creating original music is a central component to Turtle Island’s DNA, as much as bringing in nontraditional influence.
“Turtle Island started off and remains as a place to compose original music,” he says. “All the great composers listened to all of the music around them. What we do is just the next step.”
The Turtle Island String Quartet performs at 7:30 and 9:30 PM on Friday, November 18, at the Mansion at Strathmore. Tickets ($30) are available through Strathmore’s Web site.